This series of articles will look at players who could have had it all but somehow didn’t. Maybe they were heroes at the clubs they played for, but not elsewhere; maybe it was a liking of the nightlife that stopped their progression. Furthermore, maybe it was a career-ending injury, or maybe just plain bad luck or lack of dedication. Over the course of this series, there will be names of players introduced you will have and have not heard of.
Part one looks at a player with whom many may not be particularly acquainted; a player with undoubted skill and a scorer of goals that would almost certainly have the likes of Pelé and Lionel Messi applauding. However, he was a player who unfortunately had off-the-field demons and died at a tragically young age.
They Could Have Been ‘A Great’: Part One — Robin Friday
Robin Friday has been dubbed “the greatest footballer you never saw”. A book has been written about him, a film is currently in production telling his story, but there could still be many football fans who know very little about him.
Robin Friday was an English footballer who played mainly in the lower leagues, for Reading and Cardiff City. He made only 160 appearances, scoring 60 goals in all competitions. He was a player with great ball skills, physical and mental strength and a footballing brain.
Robin Friday possessed these great footballing skills at an early age. By ten years old, he could flick an orange onto his neck; balance it with ease, roll it down his body and control it with is foot. He also excelled in other sports such as boxing, cricket and tennis. During his teenage years, however, Friday became caught up in drugs and theft, and spent 14 months at one point in Borstal. His time there was not wasted, though, as Robin got himself in shape and played regularly for their football team.
In his latter teenage years and early twenties, Friday began playing non-league football and became a prolific goal scorer. He was known for his excessive drinking in these days, scoring a late winner after coming on as a substitute in one game while clearly still intoxicated.
In January 1974, Robin Friday’s big chance arrived. He signed for Reading, then in Division Four, for £750; this after scoring 46 goals in 67 appearances for his non-league side, Hayes. He was, however, sent off a remarkable seven times.
He initially signed a part-time contract, but after being “outstanding” in his first two games — as the Reading Evening Post put it — he was given his first professional contract. Performances described as “sheer magic” and “glorious” were the norm.
Friday was a player who never wore shin pads and, at times, seemed impervious to pain; no matter how badly hurt he was, he would always get back up and continue. Charlie Hurley, the then Reading manager once said, “he trains as he plays, he had no other way of playing”. Hurley had to take Friday out of training on occasions because of the injuries he would inflict on his team-mates in an effort to win. Reading historian, David Downs, recalls his first time training for the club: “In his very first training session they were playing a six-a-side game and Robin went around trying to kick as many of the established Reading players as he could. He must have put two or three out of the game. Hurley had to call him off”.
On the field all seemed well; however, off the field, Friday’s drinking antics were getting him few fans. Pubs around Reading were barring him due to his behaviour, but team-mates tolerated him to an extent, due to how good he was for the team. For example, in his first full season he was named Player of the Year and finished top scorer with 20 goals.
The season afterwards, he performed even better, scoring a total of 22 goals and once again securing the Player of the Year award. The Reading Evening Post described Friday as much more than Reading’s top scorer and best striker; “he [was] the most vital cog in the team”. In one game, referee, Clive Thomas, had this to say after seeing Friday hit a stunning volley into the top corner, “Even up against the likes of Pelé and Cruyff, that rates as the best goal I have ever seen, I’ll never forget it”. When Friday heard this, he replied, “Really? You should come he more often, I do that every week”. Few would argue with him. However, off the field problems still continued, such as getting arrested after an away game for using obscene language outside a nightclub.
Interest from top clubs such as Arsenal, West Ham, Queens Park Rangers and Sheffield United was constantly there, but, due to his temperament, they were never sure if they could handle him. Reading had decided they had enough; the final straw coming when Friday began missing training allegedly due to his drug taking. Manager, Hurley, decided his time was up at the club, telling Friday he had to get his act together. Friday was placed on the transfer list at his own request.
Second Division, Cardiff City, were the only club to make a bid for the striker. Friday was reluctant to go, saying he wanted to join a first division team. Teams in that division were also reluctant to take him on, even if he had all the skill required to be a top player in the top division. He eventually went to Cardiff, but, after arriving at Cardiff railway station, he was arrested for not having the correct ticket. Even after this, Cardiff were happy for him to sign, especially as they had got such a talented player for only £28,000.
Friday went on to play only 25 games for Cardiff scoring seven goals. He started brightly at his new club, but his form soon dipped, as off-the-field problems continued to resurface. Even after such a short stay, he was voted as the club’s all time ‘cult hero’ in a BBC poll.
Robin Friday may have been hero at both Reading and Cardiff City but he could have been a great within the game as whole, if he could have controlled his demons. Former managers and teammates have said that Friday was at least on level with international strikers such as Alan Shearer, John Aldridge and Dean Saunders, and, that if he could have sorted himself out, he would have been good enough for the England team. It has also been said that Robin Friday was Reading’s very own George Best. Like Best, once he had the ball, it was very difficult to get it off him again.
In an interview conducted in 1977, Friday said of himself, “On the pitch I hate all opponents. I don’t give a damn about anyone. People think I’m mad, a lunatic. I am a winner”.
Robin Friday died in 1990 on 22nd December, aged 38, after suffering a heart attack. A cult hero for both the league teams he played for, but he could have — and should have — been so much more.